The question resounded throughout company XYZ corridors: “If TQM is supposed to help us be better managers, then why do we hate it so much?!?!”

XYZ was entering its fifth year of Total Quality Management and had even won a State Senate TQM award. But the worth of their TQM program was questioned by lower and middle management. Everyone felt the program had stagnated, and upper management struggled to understand why TQM had become a bad word.

Upper management had demonstrated their commitment to TQM by requiring mandatory TQM training. Most groups were near 100% compliance, except upper management. Upper management always had pressing priorities, which made the time commitment to such training difficult. They were already “TQM literate” – they had read various literatures on TQM, such as Deming’s “Out of the Crisis,” and could easily cite the 14 principles for TQM, especially “driving out fear.”

Indeed, the driving out fear retreats were an upper management initiative. In these retreats the consultant had coached upper management to listen and other managers to speak frankly and openly as a technique for driving out fear. Many managers were encouraged and thought the retreats signaled change. But in the ensuing months, some of those who had been most vocal were passed over or transferred to obscurity, while the quietest and most cautious were promoted. When confronted with this trend, upper management replied they had carefully made each personnel decision based on “all the facts.”

Upper management believed the TQM principle of putting everyone in the company to work in accomplishing the transformation. They often said the workers were closest to their products and were in the best position to make many decisions. To this end many quality circles had been assembled to study different aspects of the business and implement change. Upper management attempted to appoint the “best people” for each issue.

Others noticed these “best people” often reflected upper management’s biases. Yet quality circles were as likely to surprise upper management as not.

Resources were seldom available to implement these surprises. Upper management always explained such failure to implement in terms of competing priorities. For some surprises a new quality circle would be appointed to restudy the issue. Upper management explained that some decisions would have far reaching consequences and deserved a second look. Others noticed the new personnel were very carefully selected, and the new findings seldom presented “surprises.”


This faltering TQM program was not a victim of bad faith. To use theterms borrowed from Chris Argyris and Donald Schon in their seminal 1978 work, “Organizational learning: A theory of action perspective,” the TQM program was more a victim of its “espoused theory” coming up against their “theory-in-use.”

Any newly “espoused” strategy, however explicit and sensible, competes with an implicitly “enacted” strategy. Implicitly “enacted” strategies arise from all the processes, assumptions, rules, and behaviors woven into the organization at all levels through a history of systematic choices and actions.

This enacted strategy is learned by doing, much like riding a bicycle. If asked exactly what we do in riding a bicycle, we would be hard pressed to explain it. Such experiential knowledge is tacit. It requires a great deal of reflection to make it explicit.

When a newly espoused strategy comes up against an enacted strategy, such as in company XYZ’s TQM program, it is reasonable to expect gaps between the two. Further, because the enacted strategy is normally implicit, there is usually a lack of awareness of the gaps between our talk and our walk.


Gaps between what we say and what we do can be either a source of dysfunction or a source of creative tension. In the case of XYZ there was a strong history of authoritarian management: the boss said what was wanted, and you did what the boss said. When this came up against the explicit strategy of “empowering” workers to make decisions, upper management continued to act in their normal way.

They wanted the benefits of TQM, so they told everyone to embrace it. They did not notice that through their actions they did not embrace it themselves. They skipped the training, instituted fear, and continued to make the decisions through manipulating quality circles. None of this was a conscious strategy.

Rather it was a tacitly enacted strategy arising out of a system of actions that were consistent with their traditional processes, assumptions, rules, and behaviors. When the driving out fear retreats resulted in instituting fear, the walk-talk gaps became both large and dysfunctional. They were disguised and not talked about. This stagnated the TQM program and froze their ability to change the situation.

Chris Argyris has written about such dynamics. He calls it “organizational defensive routines.” Such routines are undertaken by individuals in companies to preserve their status and sense of security (“Teaching smart people how to learn,” Harvard Business Review, May-June 1991).

Walk-talk gaps need not be dysfunctional. They can instead be a great source of creativity. This creativity can occur naturally in the absence of organizational defensive routines. However, less is left to chance if the hard work of reflection and dialogue is engaged.

The process not only helps avoid falling into organizational defensive routines, it also engages the collective creativity of the company in a positive way. In this process walk-talk gaps are made explicit through reflection so individuals are able to talk about such differences and make conscious choices.

Argyris and Schon refer to this process in terms of “organizational dialectic.” In this process organizational inquiry is engaged when inconsistencies in “espoused theory” and “theory-in-use” come into play.

Senge (The Fifth Discipline, 1990) refers to this process as “dialogue.” Here, members of a team temporarily put aside their tendency to advocate particular policies and enter into a genuine “thinking together.” Specific strategies can be designed to facilitate the spirit of “organizational dialectic” and “dialogue.”

It is not at all unusual for a company to let its “choices” occur through implicitly enacted strategies. These implicit “choices” will almost always have unintended consequences. But if choices are made consciously, the results will be much more predictable. This entails understanding their current system of actions and choosing future actions consistent with what they espouse. When companies undertake the hard work of reflection they are able to discover their walk-talk gaps.

These gaps will represent what the company wants to become. For example, “We want to become a TQM company, but by our actions we aren’t there yet.” By engaging in the discipline of dialogue, companies are then able to use their walk-talk gaps as a source of creativity. They will be able choose the actions that are necessary to become what they want to become. For example, “These are the actions and behaviors we will work to change to become a TQM company.”

Walk-talk gaps can then become what the company is working to become, instead of what the company is working to hide.


Originally published as Volume 1.7, October 2, 1998, of The Corporate Forum

Engineering Management Department, Old Dominion University


Contact me: I love to hear from readers. Email me at cyberneticapress at gmail dot com. Thanks, Barry Clemson